The world of virtual reality is in a very different place than it was just a few short years ago.
Sure, the endless waves of hype and hope that promised us a future where we’d literally be doing everything all the time with a headset on hasn’t quite come true (and thank goodness for that); but the format hasn’t disappeared either. Rather, freed from the shackles of hype and the firehose of VC funding, VR has taken on new life as an absolutely essential tool for artists looking to push the boundaries of immersion.
And while VR was once billed to us as a way of bringing strange new worlds into our home, the truth is that the best and most interesting VR experiences are the ones that are impossible to experience outside of a fixed installation.
For many such artists playing in the VR sandbox, it’s not just about creating a virtual world, but rather using VR as but one ingredient in a reality-distortion recipe: Take one VR headset, sprinkle in some other crazy techs, maybe a few live actors and a purpose-built physical installation. Boom! The human brain’s sense of reality doesn’t stand a chance.
One epicenter for this sort of location-specific immersive art is the Phi Centre’s Theater of Virtuality, a traveling art exhibition that weaves together all the realities: Virtual, augmented, mixed, and just plain real. The exhibition just wrapped its fourth phase (a six-month residency in Venice that ran parallel to the International Biennale Art). If you missed it, the same folks just opened a similarly themed exhibition in Montreal (called Cadavre Exquis) that runs through December 15.
Here’s what some of the exhibiting artists and organizers had to say about where location-specific immersive art could be going in the future:
Immersive Technology Could Transform Museum-Style Education
“As we move into the ‘immersive age,’ we will see immersive experiences melding the physical and digital worlds in new and exciting ways. Currently, out-of-home entertainment has focused on telling stories within the boundaries of a physical space. Museum exhibits, escape rooms, etc. In the coming years, immersive technology will allow these locations to become gateways to other worlds. For instance, you can certainly learn about the International Space Station in a museum, but being transported to low-Earth orbit using VR and meeting the astronauts who work there in a highly realistic way is a completely different experience. One that is more entertaining, that cultivates deeper understanding, and that results in a far more emotional and memorable experience for audiences.
We also envision cutting-edge experience design to solve the issue of throughput that is plaguing the immersive industry. A well-designed installation or exhibit should have no wait times, instead allowing the audience to enter virtual worlds at their will.
The audience must feel as if they have been truly transported to another world and the characters they are interacting with must seem convincingly real. If we’ve done our job correctly, audiences will walk away with the impression that they’ve experienced a profound real-life event, and it will be something they always remember.”
—Félix Lajeunesse, Cofounder of Felix & Paul Studios
Distributing Immersive Content Will Continue To Be A Challenge
“Creating with fast-moving emerging technologies automatically brings a need to rethink distribution. As immersive content creators, we use technologies that sometimes come with their own online distribution opportunities, but we are talking about new technologies that will take time to reach the masses. At the current early stage of this new art form, locations are absolutely critical to create the new audiences we need.”
Virtual Reality Will Increasingly Co-Exist With Live Performance
“Over the last several years, the landscape of contemporary art has changed considerably with immersive technologies, augmented reality, and interactive art. The curatorial direction of art institutions is starting to be responsive to these works, which are at the axis of art and technology.
In improving museum experiences, and engaging with a new demographic of young thinkers, the role of the location-based works in immersive storytelling will continue to be relevant.
Immersive theatre companies such as Punchdrunk and The Young Vic in London have created works that engage live actors with virtual reality. Other artists seek to engage the body or create a social experience in spaces where there is a contextualization of the work and a public exchange. As an example, Marshmallow Laser Feast’s presentation of We Live In An Ocean Of Air at the Saatchi Gallery combined virtual reality with heart and breath sensors.
In creating installations at the Phi Centre, we seek doorways to engage the audience before they put on the headset or they experience contemporary media. In examining all forms of immersive experiences, through VR or AR art installations, sound and visual environments, we continue to be reactive to future audiences.”
—Phoebe Greenberg, Founder and Director of Phi Centre
Site-Specific Works Will Turn VR Into A Destination Event
“We are of the opinion that it’s a good thing that there are site specific works, so not everything can be consumed at home, by yourself, but that you are also forced and intrigued to go and experience things in other places. For us the technology secondary, it’s great but the idea and the content of an idea is so much more important. Then you find the medium that best can express that idea.
We want people to take away whatever it is they take away. We don’t have the opinion that something specific should be felt, only the hope that something will be felt. When you are left untouched, that artwork is not for you, then you should instead seek a work that do touch you. In the best scenario, you’re deeply moved, or your triggers are being pushed and hopefully gives you the opportunity to explore unexplored areas of yourself.”
—Hans Berg, composer co-creator of Acute Art’s Work in Progress